By JEREMY W. PETERS
Published: May 11, 2009
ALBANY — Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell wants desperately to persuade his colleagues to legalize gay marriage. Here is how he has pursued Republican Assemblyman Greg Ball’s vote:
He stopped Mr. Ball’s parents while they were visiting the Capitol, and asked them to urge their son to back the measure. He cornered Mr. Ball in a statehouse elevator, and taunted him: vote for same-sex marriage, or you won’t get invited to my engagement party.
Mr. O’Donnell has even told Mr. Ball, a square-jawed former Air Force captain, that he was “the best looking guy in the Assembly, and he owed it to the gays to vote yes.”
“Did I think that overt flirtation was going to get Greg Ball to vote yes?” Mr. O’Donnell recalled. “Didn’t know. But I was going to try.”
With the Legislature set to take up the bill to legalize same-sex marriage on Tuesday, Mr. O’Donnell, the openly gay older brother of the comedian Rosie O’Donnell, has emerged as a tenacious, ingratiating, playful and sometimes prickly leader of the effort to pass the legislation.
He has helped gather nearly 90 votes in the 150-member Assembly, which is expected to easily pass the bill. But he is also using the Assembly vote as a way to pressure members of the Senate, where the legislation’s fate will be decided, and demonstrate to wary senators that there is support in their districts for the bill.
Mr. O’Donnell’s unsubtle approach has endeared him to some colleagues in the Capitol and rankled others. While using flattery on certain wavering lawmakers, he has been aggressive with others, threatening to withhold support from fellow Democrats, for example, who declined to be listed as sponsors of the measure.
“Some might say you get more bees from vinegar, sugar than vinegar, whatever that stupid expression is,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who is from the Upper West Side. He added: “If you want to run for attorney general or for governor or lieutenant governor or senator or congressperson, and you’re not in favor of my equality, then I’m not interesting in helping you. And I’ve made that clear.”
The O’Donnell siblings — Mr. O’Donnell, 48, is the second-oldest of five, Ms. O’Donnell, 47, is next in line — say they learned at an early age the importance of persistence and self-sufficiency. Their mother, Roseann, died of cancer when Mr. O’Donnell was 12, and the children had to learn to cook, clean and do for themselves the kinds of domestic tasks that often fall to mothers.
Ms. O’Donnell, who recalled in a phone interview that her brother dreamed of going into politics as a boy and filled a corkboard in their home, in Commack in Suffolk County, with campaign buttons, said her siblings all developed a sense that their time here can be frighteningly short.
“Your life can be over at 39, so don’t assume you’ll get 89 years,” she said. “That pushes you toward success in a way that wouldn’t be as present if she wouldn’t have died. It was formative.”
Ms. O’Donnell, who lives in Nyack with her partner, Kelli Carpenter O’Donnell, has not gotten involved in lobbying New York legislators on same-sex marriage, but she did not rule it out.
Of her brother, she said: “He is quite tenacious, that’s for sure. Like a dog with a bone, he holds onto something and doesn’t let go.”
Each week, Mr. O’Donnell delivers color-coded spreadsheets to the Assembly speaker’s senior staff — names in green are yes votes, red are no votes, and purple indicates maybe. He has written personalized letters to all 149 of his Assembly colleagues, sometimes adding lines like “Doesn’t your wife want to come to my wedding?” when he thinks it would be helpful.
For Mr. O’Donnell, the lobbying is intensely personal. When he has been unable to persuade colleagues to vote yes, he has sent his partner, John Banta, director of special events for the Metropolitan Opera, to try instead.
The two men met as freshmen at Catholic University in 1978, began dating two years later and have been together ever since. Mr. O’Donnell frequently brings Mr. Banta along to legislative gatherings, he said, so his colleagues could see what a gay couple looks like.
“That wasn’t accidental,” he explained, adding: “I knew if I wanted my colleagues to treat me and treat my community with equality, they would have to see John and I through the prism of a relationship.”
He has said that he and his partner face inequities that are sometimes overlooked. It is the tradition of the New York State Legislature, for example, to provide a surviving spouse of a lawmaker who dies in office with the remainder of the lawmaker’s salary through the end of their term. “We don’t get that,” he said. “So if I get hit by a truck tomorrow, he doesn’t get the $150,000.”
Being so intensely involved in the issue has had its painful moments. One of his closest friends in the Assembly, Barbara Lifton of Ithaca, said Mr. O’Donnell can become emotionally drained after dealing with colleagues who say they will not vote for same-sex marriage.
“He said, ‘How can I help this person who doesn’t see me as a full human being?’ ” Ms. Lifton recalled. “He tried to let go of any anger of that and understand that these are big changes for people.”
Mr. O’Donnell, who became the first openly gay man to serve in the Assembly when he was elected in 2002, is now one of four openly gay people in the Legislature. Another, Senator Thomas K. Duane of Manhattan, is sponsoring the same-sex marriage bill in the Senate, where Democrats are still unsure whether they can gather the 32 votes they need for approval.
Mr. O’Donnell has made it part of his strategy to recruit Assembly Republicans. So far, he said, he has five Republican supporters, and he is hoping to attract 10 — no easy task, if the reaction of Mr. Ball is any indication.
Despite all Mr. O’Donnell’s entreaties, Mr. Ball, the Republican assemblyman, said he would still be voting no on Tuesday.
But he added that he hoped that Mr. O’Donnell would not cross him off the invitation list for the engagement party.
“I would love to attend, no matter how I vote,” Mr. Ball said.
Mr. Ball is an asshole.